Parramatta shooting: how much do we really know about ‘lone-wolf’ terrorists?

15-year-old Farhad Khalil Mohammad Jabar killed a NSW police force employee on Friday. AAP

One of the greatest perceived threats to national security is the “lone wolf” – the single attacker who is not part of a terrorist network. Dramatic acts of lone-wolf terrorism have become familiar.

In the latest attack, 15-year-old Farhad Khalil Mohammad Jabar shot dead police employee Curtis Cheng at close range outside the New South Wales police headquarters in Parramatta last Friday. Farhad continued to fire his handgun before being shot dead by officers who responded to the shooting. Police believe he acted alone and that his actions were politically motivated.

There is still much we do not know about lone-wolf terrorism. While this is a growing field of research, to date there are only a handful of empirically based academic studies. But this much we do know.

Mixing personal vendettas with political grievances

Much of the inquest into the Sydney siege has centred on the question of whether Man Haron Monis had a political grievance or was primarily motivated by personal issues. But this is a false dichotomy.

Eric Rudolph saw himself enmeshed in a greater struggle. Reuters/Tami Chappell

Lone wolves combine various political complaints with any number of highly personal vendettas in complex ways. This is a signature of lone-wolf terrorism that distinguishes loners from organised terrorists who share collective grievances. Sometimes politics is the dominant theme of the loner’s radicalisation; other times, politics is a submerged theme. The same seesaw applies to personal grievances.

For lone-wolf terrorists, assigning motives in clear-cut terms is therefore problematic.

Lone wolves see themselves as being enmeshed in greater struggles that give meaning to their actions and provide a sense of moral superiority and self-righteousness. “A soldier at war” is how Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph put it. The attack is the catalyst to achievement of their mission to force society to see the world from their perspective. Shelley Shannon described her attempted assassination of abortion provider George Tiller as:

The most holy, most righteous thing I’ve ever done.

At the same time, lone-wolf terrorism is often also a deeply personal quest for belonging and a clamour for attention. As British nail bomber David Copeland famously stated:

If no-one remembers who you were, you never existed.

Affinity with online sympathisers

It is commonly assumed that lone wolves have a critical advantage in avoiding detection because they do not communicate with others regarding their intentions. As former US Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano once noted, lone-wolf terrorist attacks are “the most challenging” from a law-enforcement perspective:

… because by definition they’re not conspiring. They’re not using the phones, the computer networks … they’re not talking with others.

It appears, however, that they are doing precisely that. Interaction with the external environment plays an important role in the identity shift that lone wolves experience. While the affinity with extremist organisations among lone-wolf terrorists is declining, they are seeking ideological direction through venues other than organisations – that is, via networks of anonymous online activists.

The shift from an affinity with extremist groups to an affinity with unidentified online sympathisers is one of the most important transformations in the history of lone-wolf terrorism. It has expanded the base of support for the strategy of leaderless resistance wherein lone individuals operate independently of any hierarchical command.

Neo-Nazi Keith Luke, convicted of killing two and raping a woman, had no affinity for any extremist group. He had no friends and spent most of his time alone. He lived with his mother and had held a job for only one day of his life. But Luke did have an affinity with online sympathisers, none of whom he knew outside of cyberspace.

Some researchers challenge the assumption that the internet promotes self-radicalisation without face-to-face contact with another person. They argue that the emotional appeal to personal identity and group solidarity are more significant than online activity.

This may generally be the case, but Luke puts the lie to that test. He developed his beliefs solely by reading internet postings on Podblanc, a neo-Nazi website.

Copycats

Evidence of a copycat effect was found in one-third of lone-wolf cases. In 2009, Carlos Bledsoe attacked the Little Rock Army recruiting centre, killing one soldier and wounding another. Bledsoe became the model for Nidal Hasan’s copycat attack on Fort Hood five months later, which killed 13 and injured 30. Hasan inspired Naser Jason Abdo’s attempted bombing at Fort Hood in 2011.

Nidal Hasan’s attack on the Fort Hood army base inspired, and was inspired by, similar attacks. Reuters

News coverage of Hosam Smadi’s plot to bomb a Dallas skyscraper in 2009 motivated Khalid Aldawsari to research the feasibility of carrying a backpack bomb into a Dallas nightclub in 2011.

In a copycat of government scientist Bruce Ivins’ 2001 anthrax attacks, anti-abortion extremist Clayton Waagner mailed 554 letters to abortion clinics across the US in 2001, each containing white flour and an anthrax threat. His letters disrupted clinic operations, temporarily shutting down hundreds of abortion clinics.

What distinguishes these lone-wolf copycats from traditional criminal copycats is motive. Rather than (merely) seeking fame and notoriety, the lone-wolf terrorists imitated other lone wolves to make a political point. By turning political causes into violent action, lone-wolf terrorists can become role models for others who are sympathetic to those causes.

This is where lone-wolf terrorists appear to differ from Vester Flanagan, who shot dead two journalists on live TV in Virginia. Flanagan reportedly wrote in a 23-page fax to ABC News that the Charleston church shooting in June triggered his attack and that he put down a deposit for a gun two days after the Charleston shooting. He expressed admiration for the shooters who massacred students at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech.

Unlike the lone wolves, though, Flanagan had no apparent political grievance.

Broadcasting intent

Many lone wolves broadcast their intent before they strike. The purpose is to seek renown for their cause. They use spoken statements, letters, manifestos, email messages, texting and videotaped proclamations, similar to the martyrdom videos that members of al-Qaeda and Islamic State upload to the internet.

Lone wolves tend to share several commonalities, but broadcasting intent may be the most important commonality from the standpoint of prevention. If lone wolves announce their violent intentions beforehand, then presumably steps can be taken to stop them.

Jared Loughner broadcasted his murderous intent before committing a mass shooting. EPA

Jared Loughner’s attempted assassination of US Representative Gabrielle Giffords, which left six people dead and another 12 wounded, is a case in point. Loughner broadcasted his intent to commit terrorism with a flagrant sense of exhibitionism meant to attract attention and satisfy his narcissism. He displayed his contempt for the government and for Giffords in numerous Facebook and MySpace postings along with several YouTube videos.

A week before the attack, Loughner posted his penultimate message:

Dear Reader … I’m searching. Today! With every concern, my shot is now ready for aim. The hunt, a mighty thought of mine.

Broadcasting intent for lone-wolf terrorism is consistent with research on school shootings that shows more than 80% of the shooters had confided their intentions to others. More than half had told at least two people.

The ability of authorities to detect and prevent lone-wolf terrorism demands a clear understanding of these processes. Such insight may provide investigators with a sort of detection system, or “signatures” – as minimal as they may appear – that an individual with a terrorist intent will demonstrate in preparing for an attack.

Crucial to this understanding is the broadcasting of intent. Broadcasting the intent to commit terrorism is about how radicalisation is displayed, not about who is radicalised or why. Focusing on this kind of immediate objective of radicalisation among lone wolves, rather than on their underlying political grievances, may sharpen our focus on the dangers posed by lone-wolf terrorism.

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